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The Back Page

Apple’s Tim Cook All But Screams “iPod Super Touch!”

Bryan Chaffin - The Back PageFor months now, I've been convinced that Apple is going to release an iPod Super Touch, and that this would be the company's answer to the netbook craze. After listening to Apple's quarterly conference call today, I've never been more sure of this.

In every conference call, at least three analysts ask about unannounced products (always rebuffed, bless their persistent little souls), and the hot topic for the last two or three quarters has been the Great Netbook Question. When will Apple release a netbook? What are you going to do about the exploding netbook category? When is Apple going to drop the price on Macs in order to compete with these shitty netbooks?

OK, I added the gratuitous profanity, but these are the kinds of questions Apple is often asked by analysts, especially the ones who don't get Apple or how and why the company is able to make money not doing things the Wintel way.

Last January, for instance, Apple COO Tim Cook told analysts, "We're watching [the netbook space]. Right now from our point of view, the products in there are principally based on hardware that's much less powerful than we think customers want, software technology that is not good, cramped keyboards, small displays, etc."

"We don't think that people are going to be pleased with those type of products," he concluded, but he then hedged with a, "but we'll see. We are watching the space. About 3% of the PC industry last year was in this netbook kind of category. So it's a category we watch."

In other words, existing netbooks suck, Apple won't make a sucky product, but the company is looking for other ways to meet this demand.

Since then, netbook unit sales have exploded, a point Mr. Cook made himself when he pointed out that Apple's Mac unit sales declined 3%, whereas the market as a whole declined 7%. Netbooks, Mr. Cook said, "are really propping up [those] unit numbers from the industry as a whole."

Let's get back to the iPod Super Touch -- I don't think that's what it will really be called, but it works to instantly convey what I mean, which is a device with a touchscreen that runs iPhone Software that is larger than current iPods, probably in the 7-10" range.

Firstly, we have persistent reports coming from the sieve-like Taiwanese manufacturers about orders for touchscreen LCDs, orders for unannounced devices, and the Wall Street Journal report about orders for a 9-10" touchscreen device.

"Of course, if we find a way where we can deliver an innovative product that really makes a contribution, then we'll do that. We have some interesting ideas in the space."

- Tim Cook

Now let's look at what Tim Cook said today when Barclay's analyst Ben Reitzes asked what Apple was planning for the netbook space. Mr. Cook first rehashed what he said back in January (crappy software, small displays, cramped keyboards, and junky hardware). When he looks at the devices currently on the market, he said they are, "not something that we would put the Mac brand on," and, "It is a segment we would choose not to play in."

Seems pretty cut and dry, no? No Apple netbook!

Not so fast, because he then launched into Operation Wiggleroom and Fancy Wordplay: "We do look at the space and are interested to see how customers respond to it. People that want a small computer, so to speak, that does browsing and e-mail might want to buy an iPod touch or they might want to buy an iPhone."

Again, on the surface he's saying that iPhones and iPod touches are netbooks, and indeed I've spoken to analysts who say that both devices are being bought by people who are looking for a netbook-like device.

"So, in that particular way, we play [in the netbook space on] an indirect basis," he added, and then there's the crucial line: "Of course, if we find a way where we can deliver an innovative product that really makes a contribution, then we'll do that. We have some interesting ideas in the space."

To me, that's the Tim Cook equivalent of Steve Jobs saying there would be no video iPod ("It's about the music, stupid") a few months before Apple released the first video iPod. Mr. Cook all but screamed that Apple has a device in mind that meets the need for people to do e-mail and surf the Web, and it's not going to be a netbook.

Furthermore, Mr. Cook is telegraphing to anyone who will pay attention that Apple intends to create a new class for this device, one that is far above these lowly, so-called "netbooks." [Spit!]

Mr. Cook talked about how netbooks have small displays and cramped keyboards. An iPod super touch wouldn't have a cramped keyboard, it would have a nice, large virtual keyboard. Display quality would likely be a supersized version of the very high-resolution displays used in the iPod touch and iPhone.

As for crappy software, the App Store has already proved a HUGE hit and a major attractor of top-notch developers. It's easy to think that Apple could do for an iPod Super Touch what it did for iPhone and iPod touch, and thus the company licks all of the problems it is identifying about the existing markets.

I've been convinced Apple would release an iPod Super Touch just from the standpoint of logic for many months, but I think Mr. Cook's comments today make that crystal clear, at least if you understand how the company does things. I expect at least a couple of analysts to get it wrong in the coming days, but I think we'll have the proof in the pudding later this year, perhaps as early as WWDC in June.

I think Apple is going to want to announce it then so that developers can start working on iPod Super Touch apps, even if the device won't ship for another few months.


Follow me on Twitter @TMOBryan.
Bryan Chaffin began using Apple computers in 1983 in a high school BASIC programming class. He started using Macs in 1990 when the Kinko’s guy taught him how to use Aldus PageMaker, finally buying a Power Computing Power 100 in 1995. Today, Bryan is the Editor of The Mac Observer, and has contributed to the print versions of MacAddict and MacFormat (UK).
You can .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) directly to him, or you can also post your comments below.

8 comments from the community.

You can post your own below.

James said:

You just might be onto something-the functionality being added in the 3.0 update would fit a device like that quite nicely! Personally, for myself, my iPhone is really all the portable I need. I can’t tell you how much this thing has changed my life. Love it.

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Lee Dronick said:

My iPhone fits into a shirt or pants pocket. A netbook needs to be carried in the hand in the manner of a book, or at least in small messenger bag or backpack. If I am going schlepp a netbook I might as well bring a MacBook instead and enjoy a bigger monitor and keyboard. Weight is a consideration, but price not withstanding a MacBook Air competes with netbooks in that category.

Most of the netbooks I have examined felt tinny, not very robust, which may or may not be the case.

As James said the iPhone does a lot of things and I appreciate having one.

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Bosco (Brad Hutchings) said:

With luck, it will have the eMate form factor.

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Jim said:

It’s all speculation until we see it. What Apple delivers is usually not quite what people imagine. Personally, I can’t quite wrap my arms around an oversized iPhone/iPod (well I could, but that’s beside the point :^). But, look, the Kindle is flying off the shelves, and it offers some nice features that, obviously, a segment of the buying public quite likes, thank you very much.

And we know Apple can do better. Today, I was imagining a sort of eBook form factor, with an optional, detachable keyboard that could also serve as a case of sorts. The device itself, then, could be a 9-10 tablet with all the touch goodness. Bring the physical keyboard along if you so choose, but you wouldn’t absolutely need it.

Still, the killer feature is the always online capability with or without wi-fi; therefore, 3G is a must, in my opinion. AT&T and the other global carriers would be wise to provide some kind of combo plan for iPhone owners so that the monthly cost doesn’t get outrageous.

Having said all this, I still see this as a niche product not unlike the MacBook Air.

Speaking of the Air, if Apple could produce a 9-inch version that weighed maybe 1.5 to 2 lbs. and cost maybe, $899, they would sell many millions of those, I’m convinced.

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fotodivr said:

For me, another “clue” has been resolution independence for a few iterations of the operating system and obviously for the iPhone and iPod Touch. That is why you can read the ridiculously small print on a webpage or email BEFORE you zoom it! this tells me that it doesn’t matter the size of the screen anymore - it is the message that will be read and sent from whatever device.

I would prefer a “net-tablet with maybe a cover or dual touch screens (that was floated for a while). I had a MacBook Air and gave it to an employe because it didn’t do what I want it to do. I have a MBP 17” and that is my portable super-computer but when I need to drag a one-on-one presentation or to be able to hook it up to a display and show more than “one” - I think a net-tablet would work for me. But then I don’t work for Apple, so what I think will work is pretty individuated. smile

I enjoy right now that I can check multiple emails and the web and listen to music and watch a movie and “fart” any time I want - almost any where in the world and this aaaaamazing device fits in my pocket…

“Is that your iPhone, or are you just happy to see me!”

Cheers from the Land Downunder!

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Tiger said:

The Kindle is NOT flying off the shelves. You realize in the first year, they sold LESS than a half million units…It may have Oprah’s attention, but the people aren’t buying it, or the hype.

Consumers are getting more savvy (finally) and realizing that it’s better to wait and be cautious before investing money in a fad device that’s gonna end up in a landfill. Sustainability is NOT just a hot button issue anymore. It’s real. Conservation and planning so as not to create waste is a real mindset these days.

Netbooks are fadish however. 3% of the industry. Woo. Apple had increase of 123% in iPhone sales for March 2009 over March 2008. Dollar wise, it may not be the same scale, but Apple is just one company. That 3% was made up by ALL the companies in the PC industry with netbooks, so each is getting just a sliver. Apple, RIMM and Nokia are owning the phone market these days.

I for one don’t see the need for a netbook. If it’s portability I need, it’s the iPhone. If it’s the efficiency I need, it’s the MacBook.
Why add another device? The netbook offers NOTHING new.

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FlipFriddle said:

A device that can read any kind of document, not just the DRM-laden limited selection of the Kindle will doom the Kindle to it’s rightful place in the scrap heap. With a couple of USB ports you can use the (hopefully real) Apple device as your out-and-about photo editor and portable slideshow, Ink lets it be your portable clipboard if you have a stylus, built-in PDF turns it into an eBook reader for ANYTHING (use a finger-gesture to turn the page), plus everything in the app store already. Oh yeah! Game changer! Plus I could put all of my Battlelords RPG books as PDFs on the thing, get a dice roller from the App Store, and have a character sheet I can fill in electronically. Now no one will know I am heading off to a night of geeking, just someone with a cool slick device. My wife won’t have to hide her face in shame! Ha Ha!

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al said:

The world needs netbooks like the NBA needs 6 foot 6 inch power forwards.

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